Ideas, Inconsistencies, and History

Ideas Have Consequences, and Men Have their Inconsistencies

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a reference from the pulpit to our “american individualist mindset”. It can pretty much be blamed for anything. I still have yet to find this mindset or whose mind has groupthink’d it for us. I am more of the mind of Machen who said that “Christianity, if it be true Christianity, must place itself squarely in opposition to the soul-killing collectivism”. So I was very pleasantly surprised to see this paragraph in Matthew Tuininga’s piece at Reformation 21 on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race, he is a not a libertarian so I can’t fully endorse the article but it is a thought-provoking read and this paragraph is very good:

“In fact, I do not believe that Hall’s suggestion fully captures the ways in which traditional evangelical theology was complicit in the racist ideologies of slavery and segregation. Hall’s critique, like that of many historians, is that evangelicalism has been too individualistic. This is true in the sense that evangelicals failed to grasp the ways in which segregation systemically fostered racial oppression. But southern evangelicalism has never been as individualistic as scholars sometimes claim. In fact, traditional arguments in defense of slavery and segregation generally made use of communitarian arguments, while it was their abolitionist and integrationist critics who appealed to the individualistic ethics of liberty and equality. Indeed, southern evangelicals often implied that because sin takes social and communal form – even to the extent of becoming embedded in whole groups or races of people – major institutional and cultural systems are necessary to maintain social order. Both slavery and segregation were defended on the paternalistic premise that these institutions helped the white race to guide the black race, to which it was superior in religion, morality, intellect, and culture.”

Such collectivist, consequentialist, and paternalistic arguments (the three always go together) were also used in Britain to argue for the maintenance of slavery. “Think of the economy! All the slaves will be unemployed, lost and wandering in a world that is foreign to them, we must ‘help’ them.” J. Todd Billings in his book Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (see his chapter The Gospel and Justice: Union with Christ, the Law of Love, and the Lord’s Supper) makes a similar argument about the justifications for apartheid in the South African Reformed Church being on largely utilitarian, compromising, and even “missional” grounds. As I argued just in the last post collectivism isn’t good for society or your sanctification. Here is Machen on the Matter:

“It is true that Christianity as over against certain social tendencies of the present day insists upon rights of the individual souls. We do not deny the fact; on the contrary we glory in it. Christianity, if it be true Christianity, must place itself squarely in opposition to the soul-killing collectivism which is threatening to dominate our social life; it must provide the individual soul with a secret place of refuge from the tyranny of psychological experts; it must fight the great battle for the liberty of the children of God. The rapidly regressing liberty is one of the most striking phenomena of recent years…If liberty is to be preserved against the materialistic paternalism of the modern state, there must be something more than courts and legal guarantees; freedom must be written not merely in the constitution but in the people’s heart. And it can be written in the heart, we believe, only as a result of the redeeming work of Christ.”

B.B. Warfield (1851-1921), the Old Princeton stalwart and Machen’s mentor and great friend, firmly opposed racism and segregation especially in the church calling it a “wicked caste”. Warfield even wrote an impressive poem parroting off of the parable of the samartin:

PRONE in the road he lay,

Wounded and sore bested;

Priests, Levites, passed that way,

And turned aside the head.

They were not hardened men

In human service slack:

His need was great: but then,

His face, you see, was black.

Unfortunately Machen never learned to apply this thinking to the issue of race and segregation. He even opposed his mentor Warfield when he brought in a black student to live in a Princeton dorm. Two men, both courageous defenders of the reformed faith, both southerners, yet unable to agree. My point simply being that we defend positions, not people, principle is the matter over pragmatism. Brothers, we are not utilitarians. The spirituality of the Church and Two Kingdoms theology is right or wrong regardless of how it was ever applied. Individualism or collectivism is right or wrong. We must reject both the hagiography that removes any part or person of history we find distasteful to our modern standards, and the hagiography which whitewashes our heros of the “personal and private failings representing the afflictions that cling to most human beings not born of a virgin. So the question for you is whether Machen’s [or any man’s] warts were essential to the composition of his face?”[1]

Our actions are the fruit of our beliefs, ideas, and values,but we are also schizophrenic creatures (Rom. 7:21-25). It seems to me a rule of God’s providence that every hero, for the church or for liberty, has his one seemingly fatal flaw of inconsistency, his thorn in the side. It’s there to keep him, but also us humble. We see others quite clearly but our own is camouflaged, not because it is hidden but because it is so opaque and so constant that when others point it out as something strange we say “O, that old thing? That’s always been there.” This is why the reading of old books is so important, for both the church and liberty. We have in old books a conversation with someone within a different culture, with different assumptions, and different values. Like a freshwater fish and a salt water fish trading places, or shortsighted man and farsighted man swapping spectacles. G.K. Chesterton hit at something similar when he admonished to let tradition and those of the past have a place at the table of our conversations:

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

(from G.K. Chesterton’s Elfland in Orthodoxy)

It will do our souls good to have some humility and bear with the speck in our ancestral brother’s eye that he might be able to point out the plank in our own.

[1] Quote from Darryl Hart, a biographer of Machen

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